Buchanan and Australia's ascent to Cricketing 'Everest'

The former Australian coach talks about his methods, philosophy, the testy equation with Shane Warne and more.

Australian fast bowler Glenn McGrath bowls at the nets under the watchful eyes of coach John Buchanan (extreme left) during a practice session at the Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai on November 03 2006.   -  S. Subramanium

When John Buchanan took charge of Australia in 1999, it was close on the heels of a World Cup victory in England and a precursor to a string of 16 consecutive Test wins under captain Steve Waugh.

In the eight years that followed, Buchanan oversaw an Australian side that, between October 1999 and November 2007, played 93 Tests and won a mind-boggling 72 of them. Australia also won the 50-over World Cups in South Africa (2003) and the West Indies (2007).

Sportstar caught up with the former Australian coach, who weighed in on his coaching methods, his testy equation with Shane Warne and more.

When you took over Australia, how did you adjust with the players considering you were perceived as a pure coach rather than a former cricketing great?

It takes time for any coach or leader to have the trust, respect and confidence of the majority of players. To do so, I had to be a person of integrity – that is, do what I say. I had a philosophy to coaching as every other coach does. I had a set of principles, beliefs and values that I choose to live my life by.

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As a coach, I needed to be true – no compromise. It is well documented that this brought me into conflict at certain times with people like Shane Warne or Sourav Ganguly. However, coaching is not about being popular, although we would like to be popular with everyone all the time.

My job was to make the teams I coached the highest-performing teams they could be. Consequently, this meant I had to make decisions that were in the long-term interests of the team, not individual or sectional interests.

You enjoyed some incredible success with the Australian team. But your results with Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL perhaps didn't live up to expectations. So, in your opinion what is a fair evaluation of what a coach is doing?

There is little doubt I was unsuccessful at KKR and Middlesex CCC (County Cricket Club). The two principal reasons for these two coaching stints being unsuccessful were:

The captain and I were not on the same page regarding the way we wanted to play the game – for example, developing a team culture based on equality and humility, using data for better analysis and feedback, valuing everyone’s opinions and contributions rather than a hierarchical environment.

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The difference in my time as coach of the Australian team is that I was in step with Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting and their vice-captain Adam Gilchrist.

(And) I was unable to have the board at MCCC and the owners at KKR see the longer-term picture of what I was trying to develop.

KKR skipper Sourav Ganguly and coach John Buchanan in a conversation ahead of an IPL encounter. (File Photo)   -  VIVEK BENDRE

 

You and Shane Warne didn’t exactly see eye to eye and yet it never quite affected the end result. How would you describe your equation with him?

It is fair to say that Shane and I went about our cricket from quite different backgrounds. Warne is a great of the game. What he was able to do on a cricket field with the ball in hand, over such a long period of time, deserves every accolade afforded him.

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In the nearly eight years I was coach, we had an unbelievable array of talent of which Warne and (Glenn) McGrath were really the headline acts. It was away from the playing arena that Warne and I had some differences over what I believed to be important to make a good side into the dominant team in the world.

You took charge as the Australian side was nearing the peak of its collective powers. On the day prior to a match starting at the WACA Ground in 1999, you asked the boys how they wanted to be remembered when they left the game. What’s the story behind that?

The first match was at the Gabba (in Brisbane) in November 1999 v Pakistan. At my first team meeting, I told them that we were all going on a journey together, and that journey was to a symbolic Everest.

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And when that journey came to end – didn’t know when that would be – history would record our period in the game as it had done for another Australian team of 1948, “The Invincibles.” We would also be accorded a label because of how we had changed the game.

I read somewhere that you encouraged players to practise batting and fielding with their eyes shut, ahead of the 2007 World Cup. What was the rationale behind an exercise like that?

We did lots of different things in our training. One, to introduce some novelty, some fun, as there are endless amounts of training which can become monotonous, leading to poor standards of training.

Skipper Ricky Ponting and coach John Buchanan pose with the World Cup trophy after Australia's win over Sri Lanka in the final at the Kensington Oval on April 28, 2007 in Bridgetown, Barbados.   -  GETTY IMAGES

Secondly, I believed that a bat or ball should be an extension of the mind and the body. The individual should be at one with the instrument they used on the cricket field. Each person should have an aesthetic appreciation for what they do.

This whole thing of “changing the culture” of the Australian team after Cape Town – do you agree there was a need for them to be perceived as nice?

There was an expectation from every stakeholder that behaviours and actions had to visibly change. I think this was a very perplexing period for a group of competitive athletes to endure – but it had to be done.

The team is well through the transition now and are back playing good tough, hard cricket – just as every other team or sportsperson does.

However, should one person slip, then it will mean all the groundwork they have put in since Cape Town will be harshly judged.

How do you think this supposed “culture” of being aggressive on the field originated?

Possibly from W. G. Grace, if one believes the stories written about the Doctor. I think it has been in the sport and cricket always.

As technology has evolved and broadcasting has changed, the exposure of this “culture of aggression” has become an essential ingredient of media entertainment.

Then Australian captain Steve Waugh, vice-captain Shane Warn and coach John Buchanan in a conversation at WestpacTrust Stadium in Wellington.   -  Hamish Blair

 

In a successful team, who sets the goals and the direction a team must go in? The captain or the coach? We saw a clash in the (coach Anil) Kumble-(captain Virat) Kohli partnership. Were there flashpoints when you were the coach? If yes, how did you deal with them?

There will always be differences between captains and coaches, as I explained earlier. However, if these differences are not repaired and they become more public, then it raises tensions and camps within dressing rooms. This is fatal for the team and generally for the coach.

The great West Indian side of the 1970s and ’80s didn’t need a captain and a coach. Neither did the Australian team of the 2000s. Do you concur? How difficult is it to coach or captain an all-star team?

Sport has changed since the Windies’ halcyon years. The role of the coach now compared to what it was in the ’90s has changed.

While there is still some active technical coaching, depending on the skills of the coach, the role has evolved to man-management, to culture management, to media management, to long-term planning and associated resourcing while dealing with the present games, to board and CEO (chief executive officer) management.

It is the job of the coach these days to buffer his captain and the team from much of the off-field demands in order that they do what they are good at doing and are paid handsomely to do – play and win games!